Coming Soon: Self-Destructing Discs

The old Mission: Impossible TV series always opened with the head of the spy team picking up his instructions on a miniature tape recorder stashed in an obscure place. An authoritative voice would give Mr. Phelps his instructions—always with the option of declining the assignment—and then announce that the tape would self-destruct, which it did with a burst of flame and a puff of smoke.

If a Providence, Rhode Island company has its way, DVDs for the rental market may do so too, although without the pyrotechnics. SpectraDisc, a spin-off of laser-technology company Spectra Science, is working on a DVD that will go blank after a specified period of time—from a few minutes to a few days. The trick is a thin coating material on the disc that begins to change when the disc is first played. When a DVD player's laser strikes the coating, it initiates a chemical reaction that causes it to turn blue, eventually rendering the disc unreadable.

The development comes at a time when workarounds of DVD encryption are being fought both in the laboratory and in the courts. It also comes less than a year after the collapse of Circuit City's ill-fated Divx scheme, which hyped the convenience of never having to return a rental. Like Divx discs, which could be played for the first 48 hours without incurring another fee, a self-destructing DVD could be purchased at low cost without the need to return it to the store or mail-order provider.

An advantage for consumers over the Divx plan is that no central authorization is needed to play a SpectraDisc, but simply enough time to watch it all the way through before it goes dark. "We think it gets around what killed Divx," said Spectra Science's CEO, Nabil Lawandy. "There's no phone line, no credit-card transaction, no special player needed, and no Big Brother element to it."

The discs, as Lawandy envisions them, will play an unlimited number of times within a two-day period for a rental fee of about $3. The discs will be offered at discount outlets like Wal-Mart, and could even be sold by pizza parlors, which might deliver them with dinner. To keep costs down, a paper sleeve is the most likely packaging. "We think e-commerce will drive it because it's one-way," Lawandy says. "So long as it doesn't have to come back, there are lots of ways to get it to you."

SpectraDisc is pitching the concept at movie studios rather than rental outlets, which, if the idea flies, will be cut out of return business and late fees—a substantial source of income for most video rental companies. Reed Hastings, CEO and chairman of, a major Internet DVD-rental operation, called the scheme "an environmental disaster." Nonetheless, he said, if the public demands them, his company would sell the disposable discs.